Legends of Diving Articles


Dr Christian Lambertsen
Father of U.S. Combat Swimming & SCUBA

Dr Christian Lambertsen
Christian J Lambertsen, born May 15, 1917 in Westfield, New Jersey played a pivotal rule in the history of diving. He has been called the "Father of American Scuba" and is considered by the US Navy to be the "Father of the Frogmen." He was credited for developing the US Navy Frogmen's rebreathers in the 1940's for use in underwater warfare. His concept first came to life in 1939 while working for the Office of Strategic Services (OSS). His equipment was the first to be called SCUBA, the wartime code name for "Self-Contained Underwater Breathing Apparatus." He is also known for his research in tolerance and toxicity of respiratory gasses and the development of diving procedures and equipment. His research into Hyperbaric Medicine(medical use of oxygen at levels greater than atmospheric pressure), as well as his dive inventions, would change the field of diving in war time.

Christian grew up painting houses for his uncle on the Jersey shore and, while attending high school, developed aspirations to become a doctor. He first attended a local junior college where he received an Associate's Degree. He received a two year scholarship and went on to earn his B.S Degree from Rutgers University in 1939. He then entered the University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine in Philadelphia. Lambertsen studied the then little known respiratory physiology area. During the summer months he returned to the Jersey shore and continued to work for his uncle.

During this time home, he did underwater experiments with his cousins. They would man the bicycle pump as Christian swam underwater with a primitive rebreather that consisted of a hose, a bag and a mouth piece. He soon replaced the cousins with a cylinder of compressed oxygen. This experiment failed, however, due to the carbon dioxide that accumulated in his breathing bag. He found anesthesia equipment that had an absorbent which reduced the buildup of carbon dioxide. He made a small scrubber to work between his mouthpiece and the breathing bag to remove the carbon dioxide. This solved the problem and he shared the invention with his physiology professor, Dr Henry Bazett. His professor contacted the Ohio Chemical and Manufacturing Company based in Cleveland, Oh. After meeting with the president of the company it was decided that he would spend his summers in Minneapolis , Minnesota. This is where the anesthesia equipment was manufactured. He would receive $30.00/week, which was a large salary in 1940, and would continue his work on the underwater breathing device using their products. At the age of only 23, it was clear that Lambertsen would leave his mark on the world.

Lambertsen conducted his underwater experiments at Lake Nokomis and Lake Erie, home to the company. He developed a semi-closed pendulum rebreather with a 40 liter oxygen bottle and a carbon dioxide scrubber. It weighed 12 pounds and he could stay down for a half hour at 60 feet. He thought at the time that it would be useful in the mining industry. But after a twenty minute exhibition in Minnesota, his life would take a dramatic turn when the news media caught hold of his name and talent.

Sporting his
Lambertsen Lung
After returning to school, Lambertsen's professor, Dr. Bazett, wrote several letters promoting his student's invention. The year was 1941. Letters were sent to the American Medical Society, the British Admiralty, as well as to the US Navy and their Experimental Diving Unit. Although the demonstration was successful, the Navy was not impressed by the device. Lambertsen was convinced, however, that the future of this apparatus lay with the military. He knew he would have to redesign the unit and was encouraged to do so when Lt Al Behnke expressed his belief that the device would prove to be the future of special operations for the Frogmen. Christian set to work and developed the Lambertsen Amphibious Respiratory Unit II. It possessed a new air recirculation device that made the removal of carbon dioxide more efficient.

Sporting his
Lambertsen Lung
In April of 1942, Lambertsen's device was given a second look. Those present included Navy personnel, the British Special Operations, and members of the OSS office. The men saw Lambertsen's Lung and determined that it was indeed the answer to their needs at war time. He began work for the OSS Office of the government his senior year of medical school. It was during his years in medical school that he invented the first forms of the SCUBA equipment. In 1943 he received his Medical Degree from the University of Pennsylvania. He tried to join the Navy, but was rejected because he suffered from hay fever. The OSS overlooked this and commissioned him as a 1st Lieutenant in the Army Medical Corps. He served with the Maritime Unit which was on active duty throughout WWII.

He went on to train swimmers in the use of the Lambertsen Unit. The most impressive thing was that it reused the oxygen in the system and produced no bubbles, which was perfect for covert operations. Also at that time, Lambertsen experimented with diving gasses, adding oxygen to air for improved physiological and operating advantages in diving. These experiments would later prove beneficial in the development of Nitrox.

Lambertsen's involvement in the use of the Sleeping Beauty(motorized submersible canoe) started in January 1944 when an American unit returned from England, along with advance teams for missions in support of D-Day. The teams brought with them two Sleeping Beauty's and Lambertsen. He immediately developed a protocol for Sleeping Beauty's use in covert missions. His work with the Sleeping Beauty became the foundation for the swimmer delivery vehicle.

Sleeping Beauty
In 1948 Cmdr Doug Fane was in charge of two UDT Teams stationed at Little Creek, Virginia and was trying to save the units from demobilization. He brought Lambertsen to the Naval Amphibious Base in Norfolk, Va. Dr. Lambertsen trained Navy UDT in OSS combat swimmer operations and gave medical demonstrations of diver diseases. These medical demonstrations included carbon dioxide poisoning and collapsing from anoxia (lack of oxygen). Dr. Lambertsen demonstrated these medical problems to the UDT personnel by allowing them to experience these problems first hand. Training was intensified until they could make the mile swims in the Lambertsen Lung(oxygen rebreather). It was during this period that Captain T.L. Willmon, an expert on submarine and diving medicine, conducted tests on oxygen susceptibility tests in dry pressure chambers. The test subjects breathed pure oxygen for 30 minutes at a simulated depth of 60 feet. This series of tests became the standard known as the Oxygen Tolerance Tables for the U.S. Navy and US Air force.

In February of 1948 Cmdr Fane took UDT to St. Thomas in the Virgin Islands to enable open water training. Dr. Lambertsen served as the instructor during this time. The location had served as a Navy submarine base in WWII. The clear, calm, waters with minimal currents were ideal for submarines to allow UDT divers to lock-out and lock-in. Lambertsen and Cmdr Fane were the first to use oxygen rebreathers to exit a US Navy submarine on Feb 22, 1948. Although successful, the upper brass in Washington were not sold on the operation, so in October of 1948 Cmdr Fane and Dr. Lambertsen returned to St. Thomas with Lt. Cmdr Fen Johnson and a UDT detachment. They brought a half-ton of underwater photo equipment and a Sleeping Beauty. Dr. Lambertsen served as the Sleeping Beauty instructor. He was filmed in "take offs and landings" while the submarine was underway. This was an extremely dangerous operation but Lambertsen accomplished it successfully. He trained others to use the Sleeping Beauty, as well. It was all filmed by Fen Johnson.

Dr. Lambertsen contributed greatly to the understanding of decompression, divers' ability to use oxygen underwater, and the dangers of carbon dioxide excess. He worked for years to create interest in scientist and doctors in the treatment of diver accidents. Throughout his life he was always very accessible to the divers of the world. He put his life on the line many times, testing his dive equipment and new diving operation techniques.

In 1946 Lambertsen joined the University of Pennsylvania Medical Faculty and became a Professor of Pharmacology in 1952. While on the faculty, he continued his diving research and development of underwater rebreathing equipment for both the Army and Navy. He spent the 50's concentrating on undersea medicine.

It was in 1967 that Lambertson served as Founding President of the Undersea Medical Society (now known as Undersea and Hyperbaric Medical Society). The Naval Special Warfare community recognizes Dr Lambertsen as "The Father of U.S. Combat Swimming." His considerable contributions to diving began during WWII and continued well into the post-war period throughout the U.S. Navy Deep Submergence and Naval Special Warfare developmental programs.

He was a member of the Panel on Medical Sciences at the Office of the Assistant Secretary of Defense from 1954 to 1961. In 1971 he became President of Ecosystems Inc., located in Philadelphia. He also served as chairman of Life Sciences Advisory Board for McDonnell-Douglas Aircraft Corp from 1960 to 1967.

From 1960 to 1983 he served as Medical Advisor for a commercial diving and engineering company, Ocean Systems in Houston, Texas. His responsibilities included establishment and coordination of the company's decompression procedures throughout the world. In addition, he participated in corporate research and development planning for engineering, operational and safety practices.

Lambertsen Receiving OSS
Award from Admiral Olsen
Dr. Lambertsen was Chairman of the Board for Man in Space. He was on the President's Space Board from 1967 to 1970 and served as Vice President of the Aerospace Medical Association. His contribution to diving and environmental medicine has been acknowledged with numerous awards and honors, including the Legion of Merit from the US Army 1945. In 2000 the US Navy Seals honored him with the title "Father of US Combat Swimming." In 2009 Dr Lambertsen was presented the OSS Society's Distinguished Service Award by Admiral Eric Olsen. These are just a few highlights of the awards and organizations that Lambertsen worked with. They could fill a book.

Lambertsen went on to develop seven patents used in diving. Of course, one of his most outstanding achievements was the development of the equipment first officially termed SCUBA and for which he will long be remembered. Most of the information relating to his wartime research and inventions remained classified until released by the government in 1995. Dr Christian Lambertsen died in Newton Square, Pennsylvania February 11, 2011 at the age of 94.

(ILD would like to thank the Dr. Christian Lambertsen Family, Ed Cargile, Dwight Jon Zimmerman's article originally published in THE YEAR IN SPECIAL OPERATIONS 2010-2011 copyright 2010 Faircount Media Group, used with permission.)

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